As Denny Hamlin rode out of sight to capture Saturday night’s (Sept. 16) NASCAR Cup Series playoff elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway, two things became abundantly clear: You can put yourself in position to move on as early as the 100th lap of a 500 mile event, and you can certainly lose your whole postseason too on one small mistake.
Drama was as thick as the fog rolling off the Great Smoky Mountains that surround the iconic East Tennessee short track. In the end, it was a night of affirmation for one of the most polarizing figures in the sport.
Bubba Wallace’s Cinderella Run Continues
Back when the playoffs began three weeks ago, most pundits had Bubba Wallace as a huge long shot to advance past the first round. If there’s anything that the driver of the No. 23 Toyota Camry knows how to do better than most, it’s prove that even the experts can get it wrong sometimes.
Wallace’s crew chief Bootie Barker probably didn’t realize it at the time, but at lap 100, he made a call that would catapult his driver into the next round of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. He left Wallace on the race track while most of the field pitted during the caution flag for rain. A few laps later, he finished third and gained 8 valuable stage points.
Something that seemed so small at the time ended up being a deciding factor in a magical season for 23XI that just keeps on giving.
Harvick’s Woes Begin As Others Flourish
Just as the lap 100 pit stop was so pivotal for Wallace, Harvick’s lap 100 stop was also a big turning point. Rodney Childers decided to put two tires on the No. 4 Ford Mustang, and almost immediately, Harvick went backwards. His car was so ill handling he fell a lap down almost immediately to the leader, and found himself becoming much too familiar with the outside retaining wall and the fenders of the cars around him.
Harvick would limp home a miserable 29th, five laps down. He never spun. He never picked up any damage from a crash. He was just simply far too slow to compete following the lap 100 pit stop. His final chance at a second championship in his 22 year career came down to just two tires, which is really unbelievable when you think about it.
Certainly, those tires aren’t the only reason he didn’t make it into the next round, but it can certainly be said that the genesis of his demise started at lap 100.
Lajoie and Chastain Cash In
Lap 100 had some other winners during its pit cycle. Ross Chastain had a miserable evening overall on the high banks of Bristol. Coming into the event, he wasn’t exactly in danger of missing the next round, but it was far from a foregone conclusion.
As it turns out, the decision to leave him out on the racetrack proved to be a feather in the cap of the No. 1 team. He picked up valuable points that made his finish of 23rd a little easier to swallow.
Perhaps nobody outside of Wallace benefited more from that cycle than Corey Lajoie. Staying out put him out in front of the field, and if you were like me, you assumed that he would get swallowed up immediately by the snarling pack of cars behind him. If you thought this, you and I both would have been dead wrong.
Lajoie was a legitimate threat to win the first stage. Sure, Christopher Bell caught and passed him easily enough with under ten laps to go in the stage, but Lajoie led 48 laps – the most he’s ever led in a single race in his career. And for a moment, he had his car out in the wind.
Unfortunately, Lajoie’s chances at a good finish ended when he spun down the backstretch and barely clipped the inside wall. The impact sent him rocketing back into traffic and right into the lap of Logano, ultimately ending the two-time champion’s chances of winning back-to-back championships.
Lajoie finished 25th, three laps down. While his night could have been even better, he maintained his streak of being the sole driver this season to not record a DNF in 2023.
The Curious Case of Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell’s Pit Crews
When the playoffs began, a lot of fuss was made about the pit crew swap between the No. 20 and No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing teams. The team that is currently servicing Bell’s car for the playoffs was Ty Gibbs‘ pit crew for the regular season and undoubtedly was the fastest, winning the Pit Crew Challenge at the All-Star Race festivities earlier this season at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Strangely enough, Bell has encountered just as many pit road issues during the playoffs with his new crew as he did with his old crew. They did a little better at Bristol, making less mistakes in this race than the last two.
But in a twist of irony, after Bell won stage two, the No. 54 won the race off pit road on the ensuing pit stop, despite Bell having the better pit stall due to winning the pole. Bell still finished ahead of Gibbs, but it begs the question – should Joe Gibbs Racing swap the crews back?
Looking Ahead To Next Week: Everything’s Bigger In Texas
Next week, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to Texas Motor Speedway for the first time since the 2022 All-Star Race. This track is tough on any crew chief to plan for, but if recent history has taught us anything about races here, it’s that tires and pit box selection will be very vital in determining who’s wearing the cowboy hat in victory lane.
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